Military in rural Georgia?


Reserve units from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard were represented in east central Georgia last month from June 10 through June 17. Their occupational specialties: dentists, optometrists, veterinarians, physician assistants, and a trove of support personnel.

My informant is a medical technologist, Caitlin Donnelly, and some of my readers might remember that I wrote about her recently. Donnelly is in her final semester of the RN program at Edison State Community College and is a member of an Air Force Reserve unit at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

At the closing ceremonies of this highly successful mission across several counties, invited there by the communities, she won the award for Most Thankful to be in Kevlar Boots. More about that later.

Some of the military flew and some drove. Donnelly reports that she flew and prepared herself for the IRT (Innovative Readiness Training) mission by “packing up my bag and going.”

Donnelly bivouacked on a cot in a classroom where Spanish was taught at an area high school, closed since the onset of the Coronavirus. Walls were covered with Spanish words and maps and flags of countries where Spanish is the primary language. Seven members of her group shared that room with her. To shower, they left the building and walked to a gym where bugs and tiny frogs had moved in since the shutdown. The Air Force Food Service prepared breakfast and dinner at the school cafeteria and packed their lunches, “run-of-the-mill sandwiches.” At times, area churches and other groups provided dinners: delicious barbeque, sweet tea, peach cobblers, and banana puddings.

The mission of the military: to provide medical, dental, and vision services to the uninsured although no clients were turned away regardless of their economic status. On this mission to east central Georgia, the teams saw 1,561 patients for a total of 30,581 medical procedures.

Business was slow, “soft start” per military lingo, the first afternoon when Donnelly’s team opened at the Hancock County Health Department which they shared with the regular employees (two bathrooms for 30 people). In response, the County Commissioner posted the availability of the services on Facebook, and the team peppered the area with signs after which business picked up with some being advised to arrive at 7 A. M. for an 8 A.M. opening.

A challenge to Donnelly was the language of the clients, “dialects” as she puts it: the accents, the rhythm, the idioms, the pace. She says, “It was easier one-on-one, but difficult in a group with several people talking.” Rural Georgia has been more isolated than Atlanta and other metro areas so older speech patterns have endured.

Her job was patient intake — without a computer, just file folders. The first question she asked of patients was about COVID, and then she checked their vital signs: blood pressure, pulse, respiration, temperature.

Approximately 50 percent wanted their eyes examined. If a prescription were needed, patients had 10 frames from which to select and could pick up their eyeglasses in two days About 35 percent of those who registered at her site wanted dental care: extractions and fillings. Medical concerns, including mental health, at 15 percent were assorted, and antibiotics and over-the-counter drugs were the primary meds dispensed.

Evaluations of the care they received were posted by the patients on walls in all the facilities where the teams worked: hearts, exclamation points and words of thanks: “caring,” “ kind,” “professional.”

Donnelly was surprised that following a hike at Hamburg State Park when she learned that the nearest place to get ice cream was 45 minutes away. This made her appreciate the resources she has in her hometown- even ready access to ice cream cones.

Back to Donnelly’s award. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there were only two bathrooms for 30 workers. One morning midway through her tour of duty, Donnelly was in the bathroom at 7:55 a.m. She noted again the sign in the bathroom, ”Use sink with care.” The wall-mounted sink decided on that day at that time to fall off the wall, hitting her left boot and causing a rather serious bone bruise. The agency had been trying for some time to get the contractors to repair the sink. With the strong military presence at the location, when they were called that day, they came.

As she left east central George, Connelly reports, “I was brought to tears. They needed us. They were so appreciative, so nice to us. One was crying because she finally had gotten a bad tooth pulled.”

In conclusion, when I have mentioned that the military does humanitarian work, I am met with expressions of surprise and comments such as, “The military does humanitarian work? No way.”

And I reply, “Yes, way.”

Thank you, Caitlin Donnelly, and thank you, men and women of the U.S. military who have served and continue to serve.

Caitlin Donnelly talks with a little patient in rural Georgia. Donnelly talks with a little patient in rural Georgia. Provided photo

By Vivian Blevins

Contributing columnist

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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